Sick baby? When to seek medical attention

When a healthy baby gets sick, there's no reason to panic. Understand when to call the doctor and when to seek emergency care for your baby.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Every parent wants a healthy baby, but occasional infections and fevers are inevitable. Even parents who have experience with sick babies can have trouble distinguishing normal fussiness and mild illnesses from more-serious problems. Here's when to contact the doctor — and when to seek emergency care — for a sick baby.

When to contact your baby's doctor

An occasional illness is usually nothing to worry about in an otherwise healthy baby — but sometimes it's best to contact the doctor. Look for these signs and symptoms:

  • Changes in appetite. If your baby refuses several feedings in a row or eats poorly, contact the doctor.
  • Changes in mood. If your baby is lethargic or unusually difficult to rouse, tell the doctor right away. Also let the doctor know if your baby is persistently irritable, won't make eye contact with you or has inconsolable crying jags.
  • Tender navel or penis. Contact the doctor if your baby's umbilical area or penis suddenly becomes red or starts to ooze or bleed.
  • Fever. Mild fevers are common and usually harmless, but keep an eye on the thermometer. If your baby is younger than 3 months old, contact the doctor for any fever. If your baby is 3 to 6 months old and has a temperature up to 102 F (38.9 C) and seems sick or has a temperature higher than 102 F (38.9 C), contact the doctor. Also, if your baby is 6 to 24 months old and has a temperature higher than 102 F (38.9 C) that lasts longer than one day but shows no other signs or symptoms, contact the doctor. If your baby also has other signs or symptoms — such as a cold, cough or diarrhea — you might contact the doctor sooner based on their severity.
  • Diarrhea. Contact the doctor if your baby's stools are especially loose or watery.
  • Vomiting. Occasional spitting up is normal. Contact the doctor if your baby vomits forcefully after feedings, vomits for more than 12 hours, or also has diarrhea or a fever.
  • Dehydration. Contact the doctor if your baby cries without tears, has significantly fewer wet diapers or has a dry mouth without saliva. Also contact the doctor if the top of your baby's head seems to sink.
  • Constipation. If your baby has fewer bowel movements than usual for a few days and appears to be struggling or uncomfortable, contact the doctor.
  • Colds. Contact the doctor if your baby has a cold that interferes with his or her breathing or is accompanied by severe coughing.
  • Ear trouble. Contact the doctor if your baby doesn't respond normally to sounds.
  • Rash. Contact the doctor if a rash appears infected or if your baby suddenly develops an unexplained rash — especially if the rash is accompanied by a fever or diarrhea.
  • Eye discharge. If one or both eyes are pink, red or leaking mucus, contact the doctor.

Trust your instincts. If you think you should contact the doctor, go ahead. After hours, you might be able to use a 24-hour nurse line offered through the doctor's office, clinic or your health insurance company.

Feb. 08, 2014 See more In-depth